A Diamond is forever; So is the controversy, The Kohinoor Saga

kohinoor diamond
Kohinoor Diamond is at British Museum at present while four countries are claiming to get it back

Legend has it that ruin will follow men who dare to wear the jewel and that it should be worn only by women or the gods. The world’s most coveted diamond has a long winded and checkered history. The gem, which came into British hands during the colonial era, is the subject of a historic and emotional ownership dispute and has been claimed by at least four countries, including India.

The legendary Kohinoor diamond believed to be the oldest and largest diamond is believed to have been mined about 5000 years ago at the Guntur district in the present state of Andhra Pradesh. At the time it was a ‘rocking’ 186 carat in size.

Hewn down to its present 108 carat size, the present worth of the diamond is estimated to be about 200 million dollars. However, for Indians its worth is not only monetary but a matter of prestige, culture and heritage. Indians believe that the beautiful, rare diamond, the ‘mountain of light’, Kohinoor was forcibly taken away, ‘looted’ so to say by the British during colonial rule and that by all means they should return it to its original country and thus restore its dignity and honour.

People of India have longed for the return of Kohinoor for years. The Indian government, believing the gem was rightfully theirs, twice sought the Kohinoor’s return, once in 1948 and then again in 1953. In 2000, several members of the Indian Parliament signed a letter calling for the diamond to be given back to India, claiming it was taken illegally. But to their response, the British refuted the claims each time.

A similar demand was made during UK President David Cameron’s visit to India. Cameron responded that he doesn’t believe in ‘returnism’. Cameron said that it is not the right approach to return the diamond to India and said, “If you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty. I am afraid to say, it is going to have to stay put.”

India has refused to give up its efforts to get the gem back. A PIL had been filed last week by NGO ‘All India Human Rights and Social Justice Front’ seeking a direction to the Centre to bring back the diamond and other precious artefacts, such as the ring, sword and other treasures of Bahadur Shah Zafar etc,taken by the British during colonial rule.

supreme court on kohinoor diamond
The apex court asked the Centre to file a detailed reply within six weeks

The court had earlier asked for the government to file an affidavit giving their opinion on the matter. Dealing a disappointing blow to nationalism, and stunning historians, the Solicitor General Ranjit Kumar, appearing for the government, told the Supreme Court that as per the Ministry of Culture, India should not stake a claim to the famed Kohinoor diamond as ‘it was neither stolen nor forcibly taken away’. He said this was the stand of the Culture Ministry.

“It was given voluntarily by Ranjit Singh to the British as compensation for help in the Sikh Wars. The Koh-i-Noor is not a stolen object,” Kumar argued before the court Monday.

The SG narrated a brief history of Kohinoor from the time it was found in the Kollur mines in present day Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh.

“It changed hands several times till Shah Sooja of Afghanistan gave it to Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1813. After Ranjit Singh’s death, his successor Duleep Singh gave the diamond to the British as compensation for the Anglo-Sikh war. The East India Company gifted it to Queen Victoria in 1849 and since then it has been in possession of the British royalty,” Kumar said.

SG Ranjit Kumar also informed the court that seeking return of the precious stone from Britain was fraught with risk as there could be similar demands from other countries. “If we claim return of treasures taken away from India during various periods of history, then other countries too will ask India to return several items exhibited in museums,” he added.

Kumar also cited a 43-year-old law (the Antiquities and Art Treasure Act, 1972) that does not allow the government to bring back antiquities taken out of the country before independence. As per the act, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) takes up the issue of retrieval of only such antiquities as have been illegally exported out of the country.

The Centre’s stand caused disappointment and consternation to many who believe that avaricious colonial rulers tricked Sikh ruler Duleep Singh into parting with the Kohinoor and thereafter spirited it away to their own country. Many believe that the Kohinoor historically belongs to India and should legitimately be brought back, but the dream of getting back the diamond almost seemed to be over.

A bench of Chief Justice TS Thakur and UU Lalit, however, cautioned the Centre to keep all dimensions of the issue in mind and take specific instructions from various ministries before filing the affidavit. “If we were to dismiss the petition, it could stand in the way of the government’s future efforts. The countries possessing items taken from India could well cite the Supreme Court’s order to reject claims for return of the treasure items in future,” the bench said.

The Supreme Court has asked the Centre to file a detailed reply within six weeks.

BJP leader Subramanian Swamy on Tuesday expressed his disappointment over the stand of the ruling dispensation and said that he would write to Prime Minister Narendra Modi regarding the facts of the diamond’s transaction from India to Britain. Expressing his frustration at the law officers of the government, he said that he was ashamed of them for claiming that this was a ‘gift’ to the British when the truth was very different.

Throwing light on the history of the diamond’s transaction, Swamy added that Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s 13-year-old son Dilip Singh had a British tutor. “When the young prince was about to meet Queen Victoria, he was told that he would have to present her a grand gift, which is when he gave the diamond. However, he regretted what he did as he grew older,” said Swamy.

“All this is recorded in the book of our High Commission in London. The book is titled ‘exile’. The Prime Minister should tell the Additional General and the Solicitor General to compulsorily read that book first and then file a new affidavit,” Swamy said.

The Congress too said the government must keep up its efforts to bring back the Kohinoor.

Following the furore by the government’s assertion, Union Minister of State for Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation Mahesh Sharma said that only the Centre can act on the issue of the Kohinoor diamond.

Solicitor general Ranjit Kumar said he would take instructions from the ministry of external affairs on this issue and file an affidavit in six weeks specifying the government’s stand on return of Kohinoor and other precious items taken out of the country.

However, on Tuesday, the Centre affirmed its stand to continue with its efforts to bring back the diamond. In a statement it said, “it reiterates its resolve to make all possible efforts to bring back the Kohinoor diamond in an amicable manner.”

“Ever since he has taken over as PM, Narendra Modi’s efforts led to three significant pieces of Indian History coming back home,” the official statement mentioned.

Last year Germany returned a 10th century statue of Goddess Durga that was stolen in 1990. Canada returned a sculpture known as the Parrot lady which is 900 years old. In 2014 Australia had returned antique statues of Hindu deities.

“None of these gestures affected India’s relations with either Canada, Germany or Australia” said the Centre. “thus with regard to the Kohinoor diamond too, we remain hopeful for an amicable outcome whereby India gets back a valued piece of art with strong roots in our nations history”, the government said.

Thus the Kohinoor saga continues.

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